Advent…bowing low in humility and hope

Advent manifests the humility of God who was made flesh for us in Jesus Christ. He who was the very Royalty of Heaven became a poor mortal. As Athanasius said, “He became like unto us that we might become like unto Him.” There is a wonderful hymn, unfamiliar to most evangelicals, with words taken from a prayer written in the fourth century. This prayer was used by the Orthodox Church in Constantinople and still recited by Orthodox Christians to this day. The tune is based on a French carol melody called Picardy. It was translated from the Greek in 1864.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six-wingèd seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

And so Advent reminds us that we mortals must bow in humility before the One who bowed low to become our Savior. Pride, hubris, power, and self-proclaimed righteousness have no place before the One who emptied Himself for us. How can we ever think that our earthly credentials could ever impress or gain entrance to the Courts of Heaven?

A few years ago, I attended a Christmas prayer breakfast held in our county and heard the speaker refer to the fascinating burial protocol of the House of Hapsburg in Austria. The funeral cortege comes to a halt before the door of the Capuchen convent in which is located the royal crypt where Hapsburg Kings and Emperors have been buried for centuries (the last one being His Royal Highness Archduke Otto of Hapsburg-Lorraine in July 16, 2011). The Grand Chamberlain who leads the procession knocks three times on the door with a sliver cane. From inside, a monk asks, “Who is there?” The chamberlain replies with a very long first-person oration of the royalty’s name, titles– basically, the dead guy’s resume:  “I am ….., Emperor of Austria, Apostolic King of Hungary, King of Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slovenia, Galacia, Lodomeria, of Illyria, and King of Jerusalem, Archduke of Austria, Grand Duke of Tuscany, etc.” The monk inside then replies, “I do not know you.”

The chamberlain knocks a second time on the door and the monk replies, “Who is there?” The chamberlain this time responds with just the name: “I am ….., his Majesty, Emperor, and King.”  The monk again replies, “I do not know you.” Finally, there is a third knock and the same reply, “Who is there?” This time the chamberlain simply says, “I am ….., a poor mortal and a sinner.” The monk opens the door and says “come in.”

May this Advent season find us bowing low as “poor mortals and sinners” before the One who is “the King of Kings, though born of Mary.” And may we recognize afresh and anew that the door of Heaven will not be opened unto us because of our resume, but on the basis of Jesus’ death and resurrection on our behalf.  “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteous. I dare not trust the sweetest frame (old English word means profitable), but wholly lean on Jesus name.”

God wrapped in the ordinary…

ET INCARNATUS EST DE SPIRITU SANCTO EX MARIA VIRGINE: ET HOMO FACTUS EST.  And was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary: and was made man.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, the glory of the One and Only God, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.  Most of us here this morning would agree that these are among the most important words that a Christian can utter.  But most of us would also find it unusual if we got very excited about these words.  We would like to, we would like every fiber of our being to echo WOW when we hear such an incredible truth as God becoming man in Jesus Christ.  Unfortunately, such a mystery awakens within most of us little more than a yawn, “O that’s nice.”

Before we rake ourselves over the coals of shame and guilt, I would say that such a bland reaction to a glorious truth is part of the fabric of being human.  It is very difficult to keep things straight, to keep the really important things of life on the top of the list and the little things of life on the bottom.  Most of the time the choice between a Big Mac and Quarter Pounder with cheese looms more important to us than the choice between Heaven and Hell.  The whisperings of our friends at school and the what they think of us seem more important than the trumpet-blast of the prophets telling us what God thinks of us.  Alas, we humans have a very difficult time keeping things straight.

That isn’t all.  We humans do not have the ability to stay very excited about anything for too long.  Whether it is some incredible grief, some great joy, some ravishing mystery we cannot sustain that emotion for long.  If you lose a loved one, you cannot cry all day; you have to stop and eat a sandwich, change your underwear, sweep the kitchen floor.  If you fall in love and are swooned into some state of ecstasy, you still have to look for your keys, brush your teeth, go to work.  In neither case does it mean that you don’t care, or that these things no longer matter.  It simply means that you’re human and you can’t sustain a particular emotion for very long.

So it is with our ability to contemplate the mystery of the incarnation- God becoming man in Jesus Christ.  The importance of this event is staggering.  The Word became flesh… The pre-existent Son of God, Creator of the universe, in eternal fellowship with God the Father, chose to take upon himself our humanity, not as a full grown man but as the most helpless of the human species, a baby, completely dependent upon the very ones He created.  “For unto us a child is born; unto us a Son is given” (Isa.9:6).  “Concerning Jesus Christ His Son, who was born a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power” (Rom.1:3, 4).

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us… quite literally, the Word became flesh and pitched His tent among us, or as we would say in our culture, built a house or bought a condo among us.  The Eternal God took up residence in a human body within the confines of human history.  The One, who was of the same stuff as God, the Father, became the same stuff as us.  What do you think it was like to be a disciple of Jesus?  What do you think you would see if you looked at him?  Do you think you’d be blinded by that halo around his head?  Do you think you’d see him doing card tricks around the supper table at night?  Do you think you’d see someone with boundless energy, who never tired, never slept, never cried, and never raised his voice?  I don’t think so, that’s not the impression I get when I read the gospel accounts.  Jesus was not God masquerading as a human; he was truly human.

In many respects his disciples were in a relationship with a very ordinary man.  On the other hand John reported and we beheld his glory as of the Only Begotten of the Father full of grace and truth.  By his actions, by his character and by the words that he spoke they came to believe that he was God in human flesh.  John spoke of Jesus this way, in another letter he wrote: That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched-this we proclaim to you concerning the Word of Life (1 John 1:1).

Isn’t that fascinating?  God wrapped Himself in the ordinariness of human flesh.  The disciples were not typically overwhelmed by the glory of Jesus.  They were not transfixed in some permanent state of awe.  They walked with him, talked with him, got ticked at him, touched him, and ate with him, slept in the same room with him.  Yet, in the midst of life they beheld his glory.

And so, the mystery of the incarnation hasn’t been given to us by God “to rivet us into a paralysis of adoration” (Tom Howard) but so that we might experience the reality of God in our flesh, in the midst of the ordinariness of life.  The shepherds went back to tending their flocks.  The wise men went back to that far away land.  We come to the manger once a year to contemplate the baby Jesus and to celebrate his birth.  But we must also go back to our everyday lives — back to grind, to the sorrow, to the silence and sleepless nights — and there we must behold his glory, that he is with us and will never leave us.



Wait! The Gloom Is Not Final…Darkness Not Absolute!


Did you ever stop to think how much of your life you have spent waiting for something? In fact, over the course of your lifetime you will spend at least five years waiting in lines and two years just trying to get in touch with people by telephone. You can also look forward to spending eight months opening nothing but junk mail and six whole months sitting and staring at traffic lights that refuse to turn green. In fact, if in order to get to work, your time behind the wheel or on the train averages 60 minutes a day, you will spend six 40-hour work weeks just getting yourself to and from your workplace (taken from Jeff Davidson, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Managing Time [New York: Alpha Books, 1995.]). That is a lot of waiting!

Speaking of waiting, how would you like to wait 800 years for God to fulfill His Promise in sending the Messiah? That is about how long the people to whom Isaiah wrote Isaiah 9:1-7 had to wait for Christmas, in the face of a gathering darkness over their culture because they had turned their backs on God.

In 8:21, 22, Isaiah described a nation that was experiencing emptiness and dissatisfaction (loss of meaning and hope); a nation angry and cursing their government and their God because they believed that no one cared.  Does this sound like our nation? America is filled with people who have diametrically opposed political vision calling down doomsday curses on those who do not agree with them. Many spout love for country and patriotism, while on the inside they are angry and empty people living in fear and anxiety. They resemble the Hollow Men in TS Eliot’s poem… “We are the hallow men, we are the stuffed men, leaning together, headpiece filled with straw, our dried voices are quiet and meaningless… we are shape without form, shade without color, paralyzed force, gesture without meaning… hollow men, stuffed men.” When we (individual or nation) run from God, we run from meaning and hope and light into darkness and confusion.

Yet, it was in such a cultural context that Isaiah 9 wrote “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan– The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”

Matthew quoted this Scripture in Matt 4:15, 16 at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as a Messianic fulfillment. However, the Matthew text not only refers to the area of northern Galilee where the ancient tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were once located, but also to a more specific region called “Galilee of the Gentiles.” This was the region in which many non-Jews lived; those who were despised by the majority Jewish religion, and seen as having no hope and living in spiritual darkness. Thus Matthew saw the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of Messiah coming not only to a run-away culture, but also to those most hopeless, most benighted- those “walking in the darkness,” those “living in the shadow of death.” It is upon these that the great light of Messiah will shine.

And so we see the Promise over against the waiting here in Isaiah 9; the gloom is not final and the darkness is not absolute. A light will shine, life will come, hollow men will become real, hungry people will be filled, and thirsty people will be satisfied. Because… A child will be born, a Son will be given. His name will be Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace and His government will never end.

Christmas was promised 800 years before it was fulfilled. Against the darkness of national tragedy and personal humiliation there was a Promise of the Coming of Jesus Christ; a light in the midst of darkness, joy in the midst of sadness, victory in the face of defeat. I love this because it is an example of the very pattern of God to show up just when we think things are beyond hope. It is in the darkness that the light shines most clearly. It is in the presence of death that we see most powerfully experience the hope of eternal life. Martin Luther saw this pattern in the crucifixion: it was at the moment of greatest darkness and despair for the disciples that God was doing his greatest work. Luther called it the “Theology of the Cross.”

And so, if in this Advent season you are at the end of your rope and feel there is no hope left. “Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you… ” (Isaiah 60:1-3) A child has been born, a son has been given and God may be doing a great work in your life! Remember the Cross!